He’s short a couple consonants in his last name and 54 years of life experience, but the resemblance is there.
If their identical jet-black hair and 6-foot stature didn’t give them away, the same understated humility and passion certainly do. Their similarities nearly make "The Brotherhood” of Duke men’s basketball a reality.
Those two are head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his grandson, freshman walk-on Michael Savarino. Savarino never had any trouble getting seats right behind Duke’s bench when he was a boy. Now, he has made his way onto that bench—or even further, if he plays his cards right.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to have this Duke jersey on with my last name on the back,” Savarino said.
He likely won’t make an impact on the floor, but rather on the sidelines with his grandfather. Yet, despite all that the Durham native and the legendary coach have in common—genes and otherwise—Savarino is his own man.
Mike and Michael
Imagine you’re a pretty talented middle school basketball player, but you want to step up your game. Luckily, you’re on a nickname basis with the most qualified basketball coach in the world, in this case a record-setting, legendary college basketball figure you call “Poppy.” Unfortunately, Poppy has never approached you about basketball, and his five national championships make him just a bit intimidating.
This is the situation that faced Savarino as a youngster. Having inherited only 25 percent of Krzyzewski’s basketball's wisdom, Savarino had to initiate any basketball talk with his legendary grandfather to gain more.
“He and I never really talked about basketball,” Savarino said. “But there was one instance in sixth grade where he sat my brother and I down and said, ‘If either of you want to walk on, that opportunity will always be there.’ I don’t think he remembers that conversation, but—trust me—I remember that conversation.”
Since then, Savarino and his grandfather have held an ongoing conversation about Savarino’s basketball career. Krzyzewski attended several of the guard’s high school games at Durham Academy and reviewed film with his grandson.
Savarino went on to record 7.3 points and 2.9 assists per game in his senior year, while shooting 91 percent from the charity stripe. Those aren’t otherworldly numbers, but he got them on a team with M.J. Rice, the No. 13 prospect in the Class of 2022 according to ESPN. Plus, his grandfather proved you don’t need to dominate as a player to make an impact. Krzyzewski scored just 6.2 points per game in his three seasons at Army.
When Savarino announced he was going to walk onto the team, first instinct led some to point to favoritism by the Duke head coach, now in his 40th season at the helm of the program. Krzyzewski tried to squash any talk of nepotism.
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“He’s not on the team because he’s my grandson,” Krzyzewski said. “He would be a pretty good Division II player, but he wanted to come to Duke. He could get in. He knows the lay of the land.”
Krzyzewski also reported that during Duke’s preseason combine, Savarino hoisted the 185-pound bench press more times than anyone on the squad, though, as Krzyzewski pointed out, “Maybe that says something about the strength of our team.”
There is one problem, though. Krzyzewski strictly addresses his grandson as “Michael”, but what do Savarino’s teammates call him?
“He’s been accepted by his teammates as Michael or Mike or whatever the hell they call him—knucklehead probably sometimes,” Krzyzewski said.
‘You’ve got to be pretty old’
Savarino’s family has been fighting for him throughout his basketball journey. The freshman suspects that his mother, Debbie, discussed his becoming a walk-on with her father before Michael told Krzyzewski himself. Even after practices started, Krzyzewski faced pressure to help his grandson—this time from his own wife, when she questioned why her husband wasn’t reviewing Savarino’s performance in scrimmages.
It leaves no doubt that when Savarino scores his first field goal in Cameron Indoor Stadium underneath those five championship banners, it’s going to be a big deal.
“Hopefully, I’ll have my whole family here when that happens because that would be a really special moment for everybody,” Savarino said. “But I hope my grandfather—oh, excuse me—Coach isn’t too excited because I’m pretty sure he knows I can score the ball a little.”
A brief blush followed. Yes, Savarino finds himself in the midst of a serious adjustment period, even though classes have been in session for more than a couple of months. But who could blame him? Savarino must go from calling his grandfather Poppy to hearing him curse regularly on the sidelines.
“It’d be interesting if anyone else has had [his grandson on his team]. You’ve got to be pretty old,” Krzyzewski said, chuckling.
Krzyzewski indeed now plays the role of the elder statesman of college basketball. At 72, he is older than both UCLA legend John Wooden and Bobby Knight, Krzyzewski’s coach at Army, were when they retired.
It has certainly been a while since Krzyzewski donned a jersey at West Point. Even then, Krzyzewski was a leader. His viral West Point yearbook photo caption cites him as a leader of the Sesumarongi—an anagram of “ignoramuses.” He is pictured as a buttoned-up (literally), disciplined Army officer with a bold combover.
Meanwhile, Savarino recently retweeted a picture of soft sugar cookies with pink frosting and sprinkles captioned, “Greatest creation in dessert history.” Last year, he retweeted a Spongebob-themed meme praising Moe’s and trashing Chipotle. Such behavior is just one of many privileges of college student life in the 21st century—even if Marketplace, Duke's freshman dining hall, lacks both soft frosted cookies and edible Mexican cuisine.
OId face, new place
For one of Krzyzewski’s kin, leadership stands paramount and Savarino has plenty in that department. He captained a 28-4 high school team to the semifinals of the NCISAA 4A state tournament. He was also a captain the year before that. Savarino additionally attended many practices run by Krzyzewski growing up. Simply put, Savarino is the best man to help Duke’s many one-and-dones acclimate to the basketball climate in Durham.
But it can get lonely at the top. Thankfully, Savarino has a longtime friend in fellow walk-on Keenan Worthington.
“We were great friends back when we were younger, and we kept in touch when I went somewhere else for high school, so it’s really cool that we play together again at the same school and everything,” Worthington said.
Before Worthington left for Blair Academy in New Jersey, Savarino and Worthington attended elementary and middle school together in Durham and played on some recreational teams together. The recollections are worthy of nostalgia for the native Durhamite.
“We only played one game together because Keenan broke his wrist at AAU practice or something, but of course we won,” Savarino said wistfully, before breaking out into a smile. “We both had a pretty good game.”
The two local walk-ons aren’t roommates, though. Savarino has been assigned to room with Minnesota native Matthew Hurt. It seems Hurt is in good hands.
'This is what I want to do'
When you talk to Savarino, your apprehensions about celebrities’ offspring disappear. Gone are the stereotypes of a coach’s son (or grandson, as it may be). In July, Savarino told WRAL he was willing to literally run through a wall for Coach K—so he’s your typical Duke student.
“I realized when I went on a tour here, like, man, this is what I want to do,” Savarino said. “This is where I want to be. This is my dream school, and I am just really grateful to be here.”
And I’m sure Poppy—oh, excuse me—Coach is happy he’s here, too.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.